Passing of Faculty member Alma Lowell Dittmer, 1942-2024

Professor Lowell Dittmer


Alma Lowell Dittmer, a professor and writer who worked at UC Berkeley for 40 years and specialized in Chinese politics, died on April 15 in Oakland. He was 82.


He was named after his father Alma, but throughout his life went by his middle name, Lowell. His parents Alma and Veda met when they themselves were both teachers at a junior high school in Utah. They would both spend much of their life teaching; Alma as a university professor of music; his wife as a K-12 teacher with specialties in Home Economics and Remedial Reading. Lowell was the eldest of their six children, and they instilled in him the sense that he ought to be an example for his younger siblings.


He went on his Mormon mission to German-speaking Switzerland, an experience that he would credit as being one of the most challenging of his life. He would later speak of being proud of having completed his mission; however, when he returned to Utah he found he had lost his faith in God, and would describe himself throughout the rest of his life as an atheist or agnostic. He sought out his next challenge in academia, where after a brief flirtation with journalism, he dove into the field of political science, earning his bachelor's degree from Utah State in 1965. 


He then moved to Chicago, where he would begin his 50-plus-year career as a China scholar. During this decade he learned to speak Chinese; went to basic training with the U.S. Army reserves; and met Helen Roth, the woman he would marry. He earned his master’s degree in 1967 and his PhD in 1971; his dissertation was published as his first book in 1974: Liu Shao-Ch’i and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He and Helen were married on August 14 of that year. 


In 1978, he came to UC Berkeley, where he would become a leading scholar in his field. He wrote, edited, or co-edited over 16 books, as well as probably over 100 articles in scholarly journals. In addition to writing, he also took on interesting responsibilities near and far. He was the head of the UC Center for Chinese Studies from 1979-1983; and then, the editor-in-chief of the Asian Survey from 2001-2019. He was a research fellow at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. from 1986-1987, and later a director for the UC’s Education Abroad Program in Beijing from 1997-1999. 


His love of work-related travel would never leave him; in the last decade of his life he spent semesters abroad in Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, and Taiwan. He also enjoyed traveling for family trips. He often traveled to visit with his wife’s family in Chicago, or to various spots in the U.S. for semi-annual Dittmer Family reunions. 


In his spare time he enjoyed exercise, healthy eating, bargain hunting, listening to music of all kinds, collecting odds and ends (‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’) and consuming art and literature–especially foreign-language movies. 


He is survived by his sisters Ruth Ellen, Kaye, and Debbie; his brothers Kent and Phil; his son Mark, and his wife Helen.


 We invite those whose lives Professor Dittmer touched to leave a note of remembrance HERE.